Gang “homicides spread like infectious disease”; other homicides do not

A new study adds to the social network analysis of gang activity by comparing clusters of gang homicides to other kinds of homicides:

Using police data from Newark, New Jersey, Zeoli and fellow MSU researchers Sue Grady, Jesenia Pizarro and Chris Melde were the first to show, in 2012, that homicide spreads like infectious disease. Similar to the flu, homicide needs a susceptible population, an infectious agent and a vector to spread. (The infectious agent could be the code of the street – i.e., guarding one’s respect at all cost, including by resorting to violence – while the vector could be word of mouth or other publicity, Zeoli said.)With the new study, the interdisciplinary team of researchers analyzed the Newark data to gauge whether specific types of homicide cluster and spread differently. In addition to gang-related murders, the researchers looked at homicide motives such as robbery, revenge, domestic violence and drugs. These other motive types were not directly connected to gang participation.

The study found that the various homicide types do, in fact, show different patterns. Homicides stemming from domestic violence and robberies, for example, show no signs of clustering or spreading out.

Gang-related killings were the only type of homicide that spread in a systematic pattern. Specifically, there were four contiguous clusters of gang-related homicides that started in central Newark and moved roughly clockwise from July 2002 through December 2005.

Such findings, adding to previous research showing a relatively small cluster of gang members in a big city can be responsible for a large number of homicides, should help lead to better prevention and policing efforts. All homicide is not alike as the root causes and people involved can differ.

Two other things are interesting about this coverage:

1. The medical analogy – an infectious disease that needs to be cured – is likely to be appealing to a broad number of people. This might work better than the rhetoric of needing to find the killers and lock them up.

2. The headline of the story is “Can sociology predict gang killings?” and one quote in the story might provide evidence for this: “Taken together, this provides one piece of the puzzle that may allow us to start forecasting where homicide is going to be the worst – and that may be preceded in large part by changes in gang networks.” However, forecasting where homicides are more likely to happen is not exactly the same as predicting gang killings.

Real estate sign? Prices in Compton, CA back on the rise

The California real estate market is heating up again – and housing prices are rising in Compton:

She is proud that what she has achieved so far was done, not through heavy policing, but conflict mitigation. The last several months have seen a reduction in violent activity of about 65 per cent, she said. For her, seeing people jogging at night is a key indicator of success…

The residential property market is surging, up more than 10 per cent in the last year, as people are priced out of other Los Angeles neighbourhoods. Properties are being snapped up by investors and professional house flippers have started targeting the area. Compton’s first home with a price tag of $1 million recently went on the market.

Key to attracting companies and families is Compton’s geographical location close to LAX airport, Long Beach port which is the second busiest container port in the US, and near office buildings in downtown Los Angeles.


Violence and gang activity is down, housing prices in California are rising, Compton sits at an advantageous location, and so the prices in Compton go up. As the graph suggests, prices aren’t near what they were pre-economic crisis but the trend looks like it is heading up.

Two questions this raises:

1. This article makes a big deal about the reduction in violence due to a gang truce but what happens if the two gangs start fighting again? Perhaps the article begins with the gangs and gangsta rap because it is from a UK perspective but it does hint at the fragility in the community.

2. What happens if a community like Compton gentrifies? Not only would this bring new people in Compton but it also gets at one of the big issues in the big cities in California: affordable housing. Housing prices in Los Angeles are already relatively high and there may not be many places left that offer reasonable housing prices.

Analysis of the non-fatal gunshot social network in Chicago

Sociologist Andrew Papachristos has a recent paper looking at the social networks involved in non-fatal gunshots in Chicago:

Papachristos constructs a social network—not a virtual one in the Facebook sense, but a real one of social connections between people—by looking at arrestees who have been arrested together. That turns out to be a lot of people in raw numbers, almost 170,000 people with a “co-offending tie” to one another, with an average age of 25.7 years, 78.6 percent male and 69.5 percent black. It’s also a large percentage of all the individuals arrested: 40 percent of all the individuals arrested during that period.Within the entire group, the largest component of that whole co-offender group has 107,740 people.

Within the timeframe—from 2006 to 2010—70 percent of all shootings in Chicago, or about 7,500 out of over 10,000, are contained within all the co-offending networks. And 89 percent of those shootings are within the largest component.

Or, to put another way: the rate of gunshot victimization (nonfatal + fatal) in Chicago is 62.1 per 100k. Within a co-offending network, it’s 740.5—more than 10 times higher.

This sounds very similar to his research on murders: being part of a particular social network dramatically increases the risk of being part of a shooting. One implication is gun crime in Chicago isn’t simply about being in a disadvantaged neighborhood or in the wrong place at the wrong time; it is about how you are tied to other people.

The article goes on to an interesting interview where Papachristos talks about data issues (collecting the right data, being able to put it into network form) and translating findings such as these into policy choices.

The value of bringing gripping sociology into a continuation high school

Sociologist Victor Rios was recently invited to a Sacramento high school where students were engrossed by his story and book:

When Erin McChesney went to her principal with a new book for her high school English students, he was skeptical.

Consider the cover. The title, “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.,” is scrawled in a graffiti-style font. A cartoonish drawing depicts a man half-dressed in graduation regalia, half in trademark gangster attire.

But Bob Wilkerson, principal at Vista Nueva Career and Technical High School, agreed to read it. Not only did he give McChesney the green light to use it in her classroom, he assigned it to his entire staff to read during last year’s summer break. And after McChesney scraped together funds to bring the book’s author, Victor Rios, to campus, Wilkerson relished a day of watching his students engage so deeply in an educational opportunity.

“You know what? I’ve got to get these kids to read. I’ve got to help them read better,” said Wilkerson, a longtime educator. “What I have to think about – within reason – is what is best for my students. And if they’re going to read that – if they’re going to read the autobiography of Derek Jeter – I’m OK with that, because they’re reading.”

On Wednesday, Rios – a former Oakland gangster who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara – spent the morning at the continuation high school sharing his story and fielding questions about his path from gangs to academia. Speaking to an audience primarily filled with students of color from the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the East Del Paso Heights campus, Rios spoke of his family’s struggles spanning from Mexico to a drug-infested Oakland neighborhood. He talked about poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, dropping out of a school system that did not engage him – and the teacher from that system who ultimately inspired him.

Sounds like a good learning experience. Additionally, it is good to see a sociologist using his work and life to help inspire others.

What other sociology texts might be similarly inspiring to high school students? Perhaps books of a similar ilk, ones that are both personal and interesting in terms of explaining social phenomena not easily understood, would work. Is appealing more to high schooler’s sense of identity formation and construction the way to go or can some of them understand a more structural approach? If I remember correctly, the sociology class offered at my high school (which I did not take) tended to rely on pop sociology books like Fast Food Nation.

Social network analysis of Chicago violence show differences in risk, differences compared to Boston

Read a summary of recent research by sociologist Andrew Papachristos about social networks and violence in Chicago:

Take, for instance, a 2013 paper, published with Yale colleague Christopher Wilderman in the American Journal of Public Health. It’s set in a community in Chicago with a litany of familar risk factors: half of all households were led by a single female; 43 percent of the 82,000 residents had less than a high-school education; a third of households were below the poverty line. And the homicide rate, over the five years of the study, was 55.2 per 100,000, about four times the citywide rate (Daniel Hertz’s maps of homicide rates by police district are a good way of putting that in context; it’s high.)…

Simply being arrested during this period increases the aggregate homicide rate by nearly 50%, but being in a network component with a homicide victim increases the homicide rate by a staggering 900% (from 55.2 to 554.1)…

Even in this extremely abstracted form, from a third paper by Papachristos you can see a remarkable contrast between gang violence in Chicago and Boston. Each node is a gang; each line is a homicide or shooting; each bidirectional line is a reciprocal homicide…

Chicago’s social network of homicide is a knotty mess: 98 percent of all Chicago gangs were connected within the city’s homicide network during that timeframe, 32 percent higher than Boston’s shooting network. The network density of black gangs in Chicago is particularly intense, 30 percent compared to 4.5 percent for Latino gangs…

And a place to start for gathering more data—as Papachristos points out, his analysis is limited to people doing bad things. Robert Sampson, the Harvard (by way of Chicago) sociologist, has done pioneering work, most recently in his book Great American City, showing how positive social networks reduce crime and improve public-health outcomes in socially-organized neighborhoods like Chatham. Another possible implication is figuring out what kinds of networks “inoculate” people from violence.

Looks like a good summary of some interesting research. On one hand, this should be reassuring to the public: the perception is that crime rates in Chicago are out of control (even as they have declined in Chicago over the years and in many American cities) yet much of the violent crime is in the hands of a relatively small group of people. On the other hand, the density of violence in Chicago suggests there are some serious issues in particular social interactions and locations that are not easy to solve.

I’m also reminded of the work of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh who has argued in several books that gangs in Chicago as well as more informal black market networks might be considered “efficient” or “rational” in what they do because of a lack of legitimate opportunities in poor neighborhoods. Whereas legal businesses might seek the best way to make profits, social networks in disadvantaged neighborhoods make do with what they have, even if the means are not legitimate. This doesn’t condone violence or other illegal behavior but Venkatesh’s work shows these aren’t haphazard or chaotic social networks and interactions.

Gangs using social media in Chicago

Wired looks at how Chicago gangs are using social media:

We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist. Every day on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.

There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face. And at that point, the quarrel might be with not just the Facebook driller a few blocks away but also haters 10 miles north or west who responded to the post. What started as a provocation online winds up with someone getting drilled in real life.

And the police are watching:

Gang enforcement officers in Chicago started looking closely at social media sites about three years ago, after learning that high school students were filming fights in the hallways and alcoves of their schools and posting the videos online. Boudreau tells me that they began to hear about fight videos going on YouTube during the day, and then they would often see a related shooting later in the afternoon. In the department’s deployment operations center, the other unit in the force that regularly monitors social media activity, officers first took notice when they read in the newspaper about a West Side gang member who was using the Internet to find out about enemies being released from prison. But “virtual policing” became a priority only after kids aligned with local cliques started calling each other out in rap videos…

Police and other experts say the ad hoc, emotional nature of street violence today might actually present an opportunity. Repairing big rifts between warring criminal enterprises is really hard; defusing minor beefs and giving kids skills to regulate their socio-emotional behavior is highly labor-intensive but effective. And the public nature of social media gives police and advocacy groups some warning about trouble before it starts. For a long time, criminal-justice experts have talked about predictive policing—the idea that you can use big data to sniff out crimes before they happen, conjuring up an ethically troublesome future like the one depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. But in Chicago and other big cities, police are finding it’s much easier than that. Give people social media and they’ll tell you what they’re about to do.

And this activity on social media helps fuel a social network approach to examining gangs.

Research suggests drug addiction influenced by environmental factors

New research from a psychologist suggests environmental factors play a large role in drug addiction:

Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.

When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.

“They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Dr. Hart said. “When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions.”…

“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.

“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”

But, might it not be easier as a society to blame individuals for drug addiction, a lack of willpower, a lack of good decision making rather than deal with the deeper underlying issues in impoverished neighborhoods? As a sociologist, I look at a story like this and see the power of the social conditions to influence an individual’s behaviors: if society offers few good options, drugs seem like a more rational alternative. This work might also fit with arguments Sudhir Venkatesh has made in the last decade or so about urban gangs: they are often characterized as blood-thirsty killers but they might be responding more rationally to contexts with few legitimate ways to achieve societal goals. In fact, as The Wire also suggested, these gangs might be set up as business-like structures that happen to use illegal means to reach commonly sought-after social goals like economic comfort and respect.

h/t Instapundit

When drug cartels arrive in the American suburbs

The American suburbs are sometimes portrayed as idyllic but drug cartels operating in the suburbs would give way to a different view…

But a wide-ranging Associated Press review of federal court cases and government drug-enforcement data, plus interviews with many top law enforcement officials, indicate the groups have begun deploying agents from their inner circles to the U.S. Cartel operatives are suspected of running drug-distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast…

Border states from Texas to California have long grappled with a cartel presence. But cases involving cartel members have now emerged in the suburbs of Chicago and Atlanta, as well as Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and rural North Carolina. Suspects have also surfaced in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Mexican drug cartels “are taking over our neighborhoods,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane warned a legislative committee in February. State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan disputed her claim, saying cartels are primarily drug suppliers, not the ones trafficking drugs on the ground…

Statistics from the DEA suggest a heightened cartel presence in more U.S. cities. In 2008, around 230 American communities reported some level of cartel presence. That number climbed to more than 1,200 in 2011, the most recent year for which information is available, though the increase is partly due to better reporting.

There are some high-profile suburban cases mentioned later in the story.

My first thought is that this could make a hot TV show or movie: charming suburb shattered by the actions of a cartel family. Why resort to stories about international spies or terrorism (thinking about The Americans)? This also reminds me of a scene in Gang Leader for a Day where Sudhir Venkatesh describes a meeting of the gang leaders in a large suburban house. While the kids play and the wives socialize, the men plotted.

But, I can also imagine the real concern of suburbanites. I remember being in late grade school and middle school when gangs were seen as a big threat to our suburb. This topic seemed to dominate conversation for several years. So then take it a step up and think how suburbanites might react to international drug cartels with lots of money, manpower, and weapons. This goes against everything suburbs are supposed to represent: a lack of violence, safety for kids, respectable neighbors.

It would be interesting to look further at why drug cartels are expanding operations in the suburbs. Is this where the demand for drugs is highest? Is it easier to be anonymous? Do the suburbs offer the “good life” while conducting operations?

The “code of the street” on the real streets

The Boston Globe explores how Elijah Anderson’s concept of the “code of the streetplays out on the streets today:

Both men spoke of the street code as though they thought it would be obvious to everyone in the courtroom what it meant. And to a certain extent, they were right to: Even people with no direct experience with street life?—?whose exposure to the criminal underworld comes mainly from gangster rap and television shows like “The Wire”?—?have a sense that it is governed by its own set of rules and ethics. For law-abiding citizens dazzled by Hollywood stories of loyalty or by tough lyrics about street justice, these rule seem to be part of a parallel moral universe built around its own set of coherent beliefs regarding honor, fairness, and integrity. And in neighborhoods where crime is rampant and gang activity widespread, belief in such rules can be a hugely powerful force in people’s lives.

But behind the seductively monolithic notion of a “code of the streets,” say people who have looked at street justice from up close, lies far less certain terrain. According to former gang members, social workers in frequent contact with inner-city youths, and criminologists, it is all but impossible to pin down a single “code,” or one vision of right and wrong, that everyone on the streets respects and adheres to. And insofar as there ever was such a code, they say, it has largely crumpled since the late 1980s, as gangs have grown smaller, younger, and more poorly organized, and increasingly harsh sentencing laws have made it more difficult for people to withstand the pressure to snitch on their associates to avoid prison time. The street rules that exist, experts say, vary from gang to gang and city to city, and most importantly, they are often ignored.

What remains is less a code of ethics than a set of procedures that dictate how to protect oneself from threats and maintain a reputation in hostile territory. Far from being the proud moral system that some of us imagine it to be, the code today seems to exist as a sort of hollowed-out ideal whose role in the street is not to govern behavior, but?—?as we saw in the Mattapan trial?—?to explain it away.

An interesting read. I am intrigued by the concept that there might have once a “golden age” for the code. Is this just another case of generational differences?

But if you are going to write an article like this, why not interview Elijah Anderson? Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what Anderson thinks or knows about the code since he has wrote an urban ethnography that has become a classic work.

From gang member to sociologist

A sociologist tells how he journeyed from being a gang member to obtaining a PhD in sociology:

As a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Rios spent three years shadowing 40 youths between the ages of 14 and 17, a lot of whom had arrest records and gang affiliations. He had plenty of opportunity to learn that many police officers had a poor opinion of any efforts to understand inner-city youths. The police were instead part of a system that kept the boys under constant surveillance, criminalized their even relatively benign behavior, and left them demoralized and angry, Rios argues in a new book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York University Press).

When police officers demanded to know what he was doing, Rios knew the routine: Be deferential, even when abusively spoken to. He had grown up on those Oakland streets and he knew the costs of stepping out of line. One day, when he was 14, an officer “stomped my face against the ground with his thick, black, military-grade rubber boot,” he writes.

Rios, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was no angel when that happened. He had just been pulled over in a car he had stolen. He had joined a gang at 13, lured by the promise of protection in Oakland’s drug-riddled, gang-controlled neighborhoods. Soon he was dealing drugs. He was witnessing beatings, knifings, and murders. He served a string of juvenile-detention sentences. And he would soon see his best friend, Smiley, killed by a rival gang member, a bullet to his head.

How Rios, now 33, came to escape that life, and earn a Ph.D., is one striking narrative in Punished. Another is his account of the dissertation research that took him back to the neighborhoods where he grew up. Starting in 2002, he wandered the streets with his subjects at all times of day and night. He saw the jeopardy that defined their lives. And he met their families, their probation officers, and the police officers who constantly monitored them. The boys’ encounters with the police were almost always negative.

It sounds like Rios could have some unusual insights into gangs and policing from his experiences. It also sounds like there are some interesting methodological issues here as Rios was familiar with what he was studying: on one hand, this likely allowed him to understand certain things in ways that outsiders could not but on the other hand, he was warned about “going native.”

I also like how he flips the script with this remark:

Over lunch at the beachside faculty club on the Santa Barbara campus, where a whole academic lifetime seems indisputably safer than one day in gang territory, he says: “A great research question would be: Why not more violence? Why aren’t these kids attacking everyday people? Why are they only attacking themselves?” Knowing the answers, “we might get a little closer to finding ways to implement policies that will allow communities to bring in their own controls relating to group violence.”

This goes against many media portrayals of violence which seems to focus on how violence affects law-abiding (and wealthier?) citizens. I also ask my Intro to Sociology class to think about social order in this way: instead of thinking of why people are deviant at times, why not ask why many/most people are not deviant most of the time?

Additionally, is this growing evidence (along with this) that sociologists are more interested in including more biographical information in their work?